Is Bob Barr a Libertarian? Certainly Not on Trade

Former Georgia congressman Bob Barr announced this week that he wants to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2008. Party members have only another week to kick the tires of this former Republican before they decide at their May 22 convention whether he should be their standard bearer in the fall.

I’ll leave it to others to dissect his overall record, but on international trade Barr is no libertarian.

During his eight years in the House, from 1995 to 2003, Barr voted on 24 major bills and amendments affecting the freedom of Americans to trade and invest in the global economy. He voted in favor of lower trade barriers only four times, voting in favor of higher trade barriers 20 times.

You can check out his trade voting record (or that of any other member of Congress) by using the “Trade Vote Records” search tool on the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies web site.

On the pro-trade side, Barr did vote twice to approve presidential trade promotion authority, to expand visas for foreign-born doctors, and to relax computer export controls. But he also voted:

  • Numerous times to uphold the trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba.
  • Against normal trade relations with China and Vietnam. Denial of NTR would have resulted in drastically higher tariffs on imports from those countries.
  • In favor of mandatory “country of origin” labeling on imported food, a federal mandate aimed at discouraging consumers from buying imported food.
  • Against lower tariffs on imports from Andean countries, including Colombia.
  • Against capping farm subsidy payments to the largest farm operations.
  • Against lower tariffs on goods imported from Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African countries.
  • And in favor of quotas on steel imports.

Barr’s libertarian credentials were solid when it came to trade subsidies such as farm price supports and export promotion. He voted against both versions of the 2002 farm bill, against subsidies for sugar, wool and mohair, and against the Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corp. and Market Access Program, which all shovel tax dollars to large multinational corporations.

His votes in favor of trade barriers are easy enough to explain politically. Georgia has lots of cotton farmers who have been protected and subsidized over the years. The state is also home to a small and shrinking textile and apparel industry that has traditionally hid behind trade barriers against lower cost imports from China, Latin America and to a lesser extent Africa.

The Libertarian Party, however, promotes itself as “The Party of Principle,” with those principles being “Smaller Government … Lower Taxes … More Freedom.”

Before Bob Barr becomes the party’s presidential nominee, he needs to explain to delegates why he voted so consistently to impose or maintain high tariff duties on products millions of Americans buy everyday, why he could not bring himself to cap farm subsidy payments, and why he supported trade and travel restrictions against a pathetic Cuba that poses no national security threat to the United States.

Free trade is not just a quirky side issue for libertarians. It is a basic pillar of free-market economics. None other than Adam Smith devoted an entire book of his monumental work The Wealth of Nations to arguing for the freedom of people to trade across international borders. Milton Friedman was an uncompromising advocate of free trade. The same Frederic Bastiat who wrote the libertarian classic The Law also made a career of ridiculing the kind of protectionist measures that so consistently won Bob Barr’s support during his time in Congress.

When he stands before the Libertarian Party convention next week, Bob Barr needs to tell delegates either that he was wrong all along about free trade or that Adam Smith was wrong.